What if Lolita is the story of global anti-Semitism as much as it is Humbert Humbert’s molestation of a twelve-year-old girl? What if Pale Fire is a love letter to the dead of the Russian Gulag? What if forty years of Nabokov’s writing carries an elegy for those who resisted the prisons and camps that devastated his world?
The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, Andrea Pitzer, xii
Vladimir Nabokov is undoubtedly one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. It has been said that Lolita is the greatest love story to the English language. Nabokov is a master linguist; his novels elevate the reader to another world with poetry in every movement. Beauty that is so overwhelming it brings heartache. And narrators that trick you into believing them until you encounter secondary characters that make you reevaluate the protagonist. And on the surface of his books, his characters are self-indulgent, self-centered, and selfish. They appear to be about nonsensical people and make believe worlds and times of frivolity. Nabokov is revinventing the reader’s role in literature, creating books with brilliant narratives which have whole other stories folded inside them*.
In Andrea Pitzer’s The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov she argues that Nabokov was a very political writer who carefully planted references to anti-Semitism and concentration camps in every one of his novels. Nabokov does not appear political at all. He never publicly spoke out against Russia and he never formally signed any petitions, nor did he contribute any money to any political causes. Why? The answer may lie in his father’s death.
Nabokov came from a wealthy aristocratic family in Russia. His father, V. D. Nabakov, was the Minister of Justice under Tsars Alexander II and III and spoke out against anti-Semitism. V. D. Nabokov was murdered during a failed assassination on Milyukov while he was speaking about “the role America could play in Russian liberation” (75). One of the would be assassins went on a diatribe against Jews.
Nabokov married Vera Slonim who was Jewish and they had a son, Sergei. They all escaped Berlin and Occupied France. They moved to America where Nabokov began teaching in colleges while writing in his spare time. He never spoke in support of persecuted writers nor did he speak publicly against Russia. However, when a persecuted writer would escape Russia, he immediately sent them correspondence, welcoming them. Pitzer implies that because Nabokov’s father was persecuted and eventually murdered for his participation in politics that Nabokov intentionally removes himself from them. Nabokov feared any interaction with the Russian writer living abroad in America would be used against writers living in Russia.
Pitzer has combed through all of Nabokov’s books and researched his obscure references. She has included the sources and detailed her theories. For example, Humbert Humbert’s first love, Annabel Leigh, died of typhus in Corfu in 1923 when Humbert was just thirteen. “The reality of Corfu in 1923. . . . Thousands of refugees had taken shelter on Corfu in camps, dislocated by war and the Armenian genocide. . . . Typhus and smallpox raged the entire year in what was then called the greatest humanitarian crisis in history. The suffering was exacerbated when, in retaliation for the assassination of an Italian general, Italy directly bombed the Corfu refugees that fall, sparking feats of another world war.” (240) And while we don’t need to give any sympathy to the monster that is Humbert, Nabokov is asking us to think deeper. Why does his pedophile’s first love die in Corfu? How does that death affect Humbert?
Vladimir Nabokov never returned to Russia. “Nabokov’s Russia had been obliterated; his Russia could only exist in his books and the hidden corners of his heart. In 1962 he explained, ‘All the Russia I need is always with me: literature, language, and my own Russian childhood. I will never return. I will never surrender.'” (20) Pitzer’s meticulous study explains the current politics of the era, the personal history of Nabokov, and the news of the day. It is written as an academic paper, with close to 60 pages of notes on her references. It does not move quickly as a novel would; it is a study of a writer and his writing, so it can be a bit slow-going. However, I greatly applaud the research and the huge discoveries she made in some of the most written about books. This brilliant study is a must read for any serious or would-be Nabokov scholar.
*this last sentence may be a quote from Pitzer’s but I cannot locate it. Or perhaps I wrote it. Seems very Nabokovian that this has only happened once in two years of writing my blog.
Andrea Pitzer, The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov. Pegasus Books: New York, 2013.